People have long complained about the stuffiness and limitations of cubicles thus the idea of an open workspace has become more attractive to employees. In fact, around 70% of offices now have either low or no partitions. Mark Zuckerberg even asked world-renowned architect Frank Gehry to design the largest open floor plan in the world for Facebook, housing 2,800 engineers in 10 acres of open workspace.

According to a research done by Knoll, open office spaces foster communication, interaction, and flexibility. All these things combined can help increase one’s productivity. Plus, it is also more cost efficient and can accommodate more employees.

However, the benefits were also negated by the same amount of drawbacks. The study also said that open workspaces increased noise, lacked privacy, multiplied distractions, and perceived crowding. All these things combined can likewise decrease one’s productivity.

A quick look at open space history

German design group Quickborner came up with the idea of Bürolandschaft or “office landscape” in the 1950s. American furniture manufacturer Herman Miller followed suit in 1964, introducing the Action Office system which had different desk heights and bigger spaces. However, when this system was sold to companies later on they only chose the space-saving aspects and left out the humanizing elements.

Action Office II by Herman Miller
Action Office II by Herman Miller Photo credit: KISI –

Open spaces productivity busters

As much as open office spaces allow employees to collaborate more, it’s not the only thing they need to work better. You need to be able to concentrate as well. You need some quiet time to think and come up with ideas. Unfortunately, these things get robbed from you when you’re in an open space setting.

Conflicts – Nothing affects your productivity more than your blood boiling. According to the study done by Vinesh Oommen of Queensland University of Technology in Australia, open space plans can cause workplace conflict, high blood pressure, high stress levels, and worst of all, increased staff turnover. They’re not only fighting, they’re also leaving. The research also stated that health-wise, open offices causes virus to spread faster.

Noise – This is one of the main disadvantages of open workspaces. You can hear what every other person is saying. You are also privy to brainstorming sessions which can be really loud. A study done by psychologists Gary Evans and Dana Johnson at Cornell University showed that employees exposed to open office noise for three hours had increased levels of epinephrine or what we call the adrenaline for fight-or-flight response. This causes physical and mental strain that can affect one’s productivity. The research also said that it made employees less motivated to solve problems.

Lack of privacy – Nobody likes living in a fishbowl. Working with that nagging feeling that your every move is being watched can negatively affect your productivity. A report done by professors Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks for Harvard Business Review stated, “Some studies show that employees in open-plan spaces, knowing that they may be overheard or interrupted, have shorter and more-superficial discussions than they otherwise would.” Another study by the International Journal of Stress Management showed that employees who get interrupted often are 9% more exhausted.

The compromise

The effectiveness of open workspaces greatly depends on the kind of work you do. If your industry requires a lot of team collaboration then this can probably benefit your employees more. If your work is time-sensitive and requires more focus then maybe this setup isn’t ideal for your team.

For those with open spaces and have seen declining productivity in your team, consider providing private nooks or pods where some of your employees can work in peace. And if you notice that people are lining up to use it maybe it’s high time to consider decreasing those open spaces and start customizing more individual work spaces. Remember that your people spend 8 hours of their day in the office so make it worthwhile for them.

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